Adam Sandler always gets the girl, but in most of his movies you’d be hard-pressed to remember who she was. Patricia Arquette in ”Little Nicky”? Joey Lauren Adams in ”Big Daddy”? For Sandler, these costars aren’t love partners; they’re more like women who take in a stray puppy and patiently housebreak him.
I don’t mean to suggest, though, that Sandler lacks the qualities of a romantic star. He may favor gags that trade on bodily functions and bashed limbs, but as a hero he has always possessed a streak of stubborn loyalty. He is nothing if not obsessive – and, of course, more than a little childlike. (Isn’t that what his AstroTurf-on-a-coconut-shell hair is about? It makes him look 12.) He’s an elfin parody of a grown-up in love. Sandler’s pursuit of Emily Watson in ”Punch-Drunk Love” had the quality of a grade-school crush driven to maniacal extremes. If the movie, for all its fascination, lacked fizz, that was due to its central imbalance: He was a creature of stuttering fixation; she was all elegant sanity.
In 50 First Dates, an agreeably deranged romance with a geeks-in-paradise Hawaiian setting, Sandler finally gets matched with a character who is every bit as moonstruck as he is. Maybe more so. Drew Barrymore, with her giggly sweet smirk, plays Lucy, who lives in a permanent floating state of 24-hour amnesia. Each day, she wakes up having forgotten everything that occurred the day before – everything, in fact, since the car accident that caused her condition. Over and over, she engages in her morning ritual, sitting in the booth of a tiki-shack breakfast café and building a sculpture out of waffles. Sandler, as marine veterinarian Henry Roth, is a baby-cheeked lothario in sandals and flowered shirts whose love life consists of seducing, and then ditching, one horny tourist after the next. Spying Lucy in that booth, he attempts to make his move, but the moment she announces how much she likes the smell of fish on his hands (it reminds her of her dad), she gives off a glow he can’t shake. They agree to meet up the next morning – but, of course, when they do, she can’t remember him. The seduction has to start all over.
There’s a glimmer of randiness to this daffy fusion of ”Groundhog Day” and ”Memento,” since Henry, if he chose to, could attempt to sleep with Lucy in perpetuity, turning her into the ultimate one-night stand. But Sandler, once he gets past a few early, signature gross-out gags (one features a tidal wave of walrus vomit), stares at Barrymore with a twinkle that’s deeper, more alive in its adoration, than the look he had when he first teamed up with her in ”The Wedding Singer.” In this even sillier movie, the stars have a goo-goo chemistry that’s hard to resist. ”50 First Dates” is fairly slapdash, with only a semblance of the intricate rhymed structure of ”Groundhog Day.” Most of the comedy springs from jokes on the sidelines, like Rob Schneider’s Polynesian-slob routine, or Sandler’s assistant (Lusia Strus), who’s like a transsexual KGB agent rejected by the Farrelly brothers, or Sean Astin, doing a weirdly original lisp as Barrymore’s muscle-boy brother, who appears to have a crush on himself. Yet the movie, for all its genial idiocy, connects emotionally by tapping into the frustration of Lucy’s condition. Barrymore has such a flaky, bedazzled charm that you start to get invested in seeing her rescued. Sandler, confronted with a girl who can’t remember him, is forced to become the ultimate romantic, a man who woos with every breath. As a comedy, ”50 First Dates” is standard Sandler, but as a love story it left me pleasantly buzzed, if not quite punch-drunk.